A chain of errors made by the Iranian military resulted in the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane in January, investigators have said. The tragic incident began with an air defense unit misaligning its radar by 107 degrees.
Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down shortly after departing from Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran. An interim report by Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization has outlined the chain of mistakes by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which resulted in the death of all 176 people on board the airliner.
The downing occurred amid a period of high tension between the US and Iran following the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a US airstrike and Iran’s retaliatory ballistic missile strikes against US military bases in Iraq. The Iranian military suspended regular procedures for managing air traffic in the country, which is ordinarily led by civilian authorities, and insisted that only aircraft cleared for flight by the military are allowed in Iranian airspace.
An air defense unit deployed near Tehran was relocated shortly before the incident, the Iranian investigators said. Once in its new location, however, it failed to properly adjust its radar station – which ended up being 107 degrees off. This was due to human error, the first of several that led to the tragic outcome, the report said.
The unit detected Flight 752 after take-off, but due to the misalignment the operator believed it to be approaching Tehran from the southwest, while in reality the plane was moving northwest tangentially to the Iranian capital. A report containing the mistaken data for some reason was not communicated up the chain of command and to a coordination center, setting off a second key link in the chain of events.
The operator then failed to identify the target as a commercial aircraft, mistaking it for a threat. According to relevant procedures, at this point he should have sought a fire command from his superiors, but didn’t and instead launched two surface-to-air missiles at the Ukrainian plane, the report said. Investigators said at least one of the projectiles, which were fired 30 seconds apart, hit Flight 752.
The interim report stressed that if even one of the four key links in the chain of events hadn’t occurred, the passenger aircraft “would not have been targeted”. It added that its investigation was still underway and that more such mistakes may be identified before its conclusion.
The investigators said that their job was not to assign blame, but to prevent future accidents by exposing lapses in the existing system. Their analysis did not imply that the downing of the plane was somehow inevitable and extended their condolences to the families of the victims, they added.
The January 8 incident became a major point of dispute between Iran’s government and the Revolutionary Guards, who initially denied any involvement in the incident, and led senior civilian officials – including President Hassan Rouhani – to stand by them. Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh, who commands the aerospace forces of the IRGC, later accepted full responsibility for the tragedy.
Six people have been arrested in Iran in connection with the downing of the Ukrainian plane, authorities said last month.
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